Opinion

Could your Valentine's treat be hastening the decline and fall of America?

How 'decadence' came to describe empires and chocolate like

If someone offered you some decadent chocolate for Valentine's Day, would you decline? Or would you fall for them?

It's a fair question. After all, "decadence" is from Latin decadentia, from de- "down" plus cadere "fall" — also the origin of our word "decay." And while we may be used to seeing "decadence" and "decadent" referring to chocolate desserts and other delights, there are also people who use it to refer to societal decline — people such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who not too long ago came out with a book called The Decadent Society. In his use, the word means not people who are enjoying a lot of champagne and truffles (well, maybe them too) but "economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development." Uh ... yuck.

"Decadence" has in fact long been used to refer to the downslope of a once-great nation. As Giambattista Vico said in the early 1700s, "all nations run in time through their origins, progress, stasis, decadence, and end." It was true of Rome — as Vico's French contemporary Montesquieu told us in his book Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence, commonly translated to English as Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline — and, the idea was that the great empires of our own time should expect their turn.

But how did we get from that to chocolate? Could your Valentine's treat be hastening the decline and fall of America?

Decay (not the tooth kind)

Let's start with the fact that, as the Merriam-Webster blog points out, Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary defined "decadence" simply as a synonym of "decay." It's been in English as a word since the 1500s (though "decadent" was only derived from it in the 1800s), and that's all it meant at first, typically in reference to big things such as houses, towns, and countries, rather than small things such as teeth.

So when philosophers of history wanted to talk about the decline of nations and civilizations, "decadent" was right there. Thomas Carlyle, in the 1830s and 1840s, wrote of "those decadent ages in which no Ideal either grows or blossoms," and proclaimed, "what Century, since the end of the Roman world, which also was a time of scepticism, simulacra and universal decadence, so abounds with Quacks as that Eighteenth?" And when, in 1888, H.G. Wells wanted to summon up a vision of civilization in utter decline for his early science-fiction work The Time Machine, he wrote of "decadent humanity," describing how "in this decadence, too, the art of fire-making had been forgotten on the earth." (That's a far cry from a "decadent spa vacation"!)

The road to Hell

The road from chaos to chocolate started when "decadence" took on not just a neutral sense of "decay" but a morally freighted sense of "degeneration." Rome was famous for its orgies (though, as with most "decadent" things, the marketing was probably greater than the reality), and Montesquieu saw such immorality and self-indulgence as a key cause of the decline of the Roman empire.

Moralists of the 1700s and 1800s saw similar indulgence as a sign of moral and cultural decay in their own times. And because these moralists were also (of course) traditionalists, they didn't like the new writing styles of new poets, dramatists, and novelists. French critics such as Désiré Nisard used "decadence" to decry the work of authors such as Victor Hugo as evidence of intellectual, social, and thus moral decline.

Now, obviously, many people liked Hugo and his contemporaries and, also obviously, many people liked eating rich food, drinking fine wine, and reclining in the lap of luxury. And they disliked the finger-wagging admonitions of moralists. So we can't be too surprised that some people wore their defiance of this stodgy, severe moralism as a proud boutonniere.

One of the first to boast of his decadence was Charles Baudelaire, who with his 1857 Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) proudly espoused the model of the Roman decadence for entering into life with abandon. Others followed, and by the 1880s there was a whole French literary movement that was proudly called Decadent, featuring poets such as Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé, artists such as Félicien Rops, and novelists such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose À rebours (Against Nature) was — to use the description from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray — "a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own," and written in a "curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once." Everything, in short, that moralists and reactionaries would call "poisonous." (That includes chocolate, but it's just one of many delights: It shows up at a feast along with caviar, truffles, turtle soup, sausages, puddings, blackberries, and plenty of beer, wine, and coffee. Poison us some more.)

Having a sick time

The Decadent movement didn't last forever, but it had its immediate influences on writers such as Oscar Wilde and artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, and the idea that "decadent" could be enjoyable took hold and permeated the ethos of the fin-de-siècle (that's "end of century," but in French, which matters). And the people who despised such "decadence" came right along with it.

For every person like E.M. Forster's Cecil Vyse in A Room with a View (1908), boasting, "I have no profession. ... It is another example of my decadence. My attitude — quite an indefensible one — is that so long as I am no trouble to any one I have a right to do as I like," there was someone like Constance and Sophia Baines in Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale (also 1908) who viewed the era as "an age of decadence and open shame." Max Nordau's 1892 book Entartung (Degeneration) was a jeremiad against the art and society of the time, which he viewed as being in a state of literal sickness: This decadence, this rejection of tradition and morality, this espousal of new art forms and luxuries, was in his view a mental illness that required treatment, lest European civilization go the way of ancient Rome.

"Decadence" had become a cultural coin with two sides — a happy, self-indulgent face and a frowning, censorious one — but whichever side you saw, it stood for the same thing: rejection of tradition and moral impositions and embrace of new art forms and indulgence of the emotions and senses (though not yet specifically chocolate). And after the slaughter of World War I, it became the coin of the realm in the Berlin of the 1920s and early 1930s — a coin that was tarnished, but those who liked it celebrated its tarnish.

Artists such as George Grosz, filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, and playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht had a vision of decadence that embraced the louche, dark, and cynical in a world of free-living cabarets. But we know who came next: Adolf Hitler and his Nazis, who condemned this "degenerate art" ("Entartete Kunst" — not that Hitler would acknowledged any debt to Nordau, a Jewish Zionist).

After World War II, the positive-toned use of "decadent" subsided a little for a time; if you look in TIME magazine from the 1940s through the 1970s, for example, you see the word "decadent" most often showing up in the company of words such as "bourgeois" and "capitalist." But the association with self-indulgence didn't disappear altogether, and neither did the moral condemnation. What changed was that from Nordau's idea of poor mental health the focus moved to literal physical health.

Something this good must be bad

It's not exactly a new thing to link health and morality. For millennia, sickness was taken as punishment from God — you'll find it even in the first books of the Bible. It's also not a new thing to link self-discipline and self-denial to virtue — that's at the heart of what Max Weber identified as the "Protestant work ethic," but preachers and scolds of all kinds throughout the ages have warned that self-indulgence is the way to Hell (there are long, lovely medieval songs about how the world's bliss will lead you to damnation).

Religion plays a less central role in the society of our own times (exceptions apply, of course), so you would expect moralization about health and self-indulgence to have subsided too. You'd be wrong. We've replaced metaphysical sin and virtue with physical sin and virtue. Even those of us who aren't Protestant still have the work ethic, and your personal health maintenance is taken as a sign of your personal virtue. Which means that we still see self-indulgence as immoral.

Not sure about that? Look at the words we use. For example, we all know that cheating is immoral, so ... what's a "cheat day"? A day you skip your exercise program. Maybe you "cheat on your diet." How? Well, with something "sinfully delicious," like a chocolate sundae. Do we believe that we will be sent to Hell for enjoying fat and sugar? Probably not, but we do feel like we're somehow being at least a little bit bad because we're not taking care of our health. We're eating things that the high priests of modern virtue — TV health gurus — tell us we should avoid. They're "guilty pleasures," and you just try to find a more morally freighted word than "guilty."

This is such a big problem in health care that there are quite a few studies and even books published on it — start with Morality and Health, edited by Allan M. Brandt and Paul Rozin, and keep on to more recent studies such as "The moralization of obesity" by Megan M. Ringel and Peter H. Ditto. As Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth, told Megan McArdle in a 2009 interview for The Atlantic, "we're in the midst of a moral panic over fat, which has transformed the heavier than average into folk devils, to whom all sorts of social ills are ascribed."

More sin, please!

But where there are Désiré Nisards, there are Charles Baudelaires. Guilty pleasures are pleasures, and you don't go broke selling those. And so, starting in the 1970s, "decadent" was used to sell rich desserts — especially chocolate, of course.

On their blog Grammarphobia, Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman note that the earliest example they've seen of "decadent" used for chocolate cake is "from a 1978 item in Cue magazine about the 'Decadent Chocolate Cake ($1.25 a slice) that's appropriately named' at the Silver Palate food store in Manhattan." That recipe made it into the bestselling 1982 Silver Palate Cookbook. In other words, we more than likely can thank the Silver Palate's co-founders, Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, who lived by mottos such as "Cooking is like love — it should be entered into with abandon or not at all," for really getting the specific association of "decadent" with "chocolate" going. And it has caught on!

So now, if you search the Corpus of Contemporary American English, you'll find the words that now most often follow "decadent," in descending order of frequency, are an interesting mixture: chocolate, dessert, desserts, society, west, western, lifestyle, treat, ways, dinner, culture, behavior, corrupt, delicious, and cake.

And, speaking of guilty pleasures, if you search the Corpus of American Soap Operas, which covers the early 21st century, you can see this cultural movement in action: "I saw the most sinfully, decadent triple-chocolate layer cake with white-chocolate icing" (All My Children); "The most decadent, self-indulgent, romantic dinner I can pull together on a moment's notice" (General Hospital); and "Absolutely lethal and decadent. But the way it makes you feel inside makes it worth the risk" (The Bold and the Beautiful). 'Twas ever thus.

So. It may be that, as Jacques Barzun put it (and Douthat quoted), in our time, "The forms of art as life seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces." But it may also be that, when we can, we're having a delicious time being "naughty."

More From...

Picture of James HarbeckJames Harbeck
Read All
A succinct examination of our pronunciation
Speech.
Opinion

A succinct examination of our pronunciation

A word to the Y's on Ukrainian and Russian
Volodymr Zelensky.
Opinion

A word to the Y's on Ukrainian and Russian

Have yourself a cracking St. Patrick's Day
Guinness.
Opinion

Have yourself a cracking St. Patrick's Day

There's no vacation from the quirks of English
A postcard.
Opinion

There's no vacation from the quirks of English

Recommended

The daily gossip: May 27, 2022
Jodie Foster
Daily gossip

The daily gossip: May 27, 2022

The week's best photojournalism
A tightrope walker.
Photos

The week's best photojournalism

Meghan Markle pays surprise visit to Uvalde memorial, donates food
Meghan Markle
'unimaginable grief'

Meghan Markle pays surprise visit to Uvalde memorial, donates food

Lee Greenwood, Gov. Abbott cancel NRA appearances after Uvalde shooting
Lee Greenwood
No country for old men

Lee Greenwood, Gov. Abbott cancel NRA appearances after Uvalde shooting

Most Popular

Is the war shifting in Russia's favor?
Vladimir Putin.
Opinion

Is the war shifting in Russia's favor?

CDC identifies 9 monkeypox cases across 7 states
Monkeypox virus.
more pox

CDC identifies 9 monkeypox cases across 7 states

Uvalde gunman was inside school for an hour as parents urged police to act
Uvalde school memorial
'Go in there! Go in there!'

Uvalde gunman was inside school for an hour as parents urged police to act